Many of you know my heart lies at my place in the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, regardless of where my body resides. It’s on an inland lake, fifteen miles of dirt and gravel roads from where you can buy anything, and the setting for two of my novels (Cabin Fever and Empty Promises). Unless the logging companies are working in the area, the only way in during the winter is snowmobile.
The 250-acre lake has only six resident structures plus another half-dozen properties with trailers or tent sites for occasional visits. Lucky for us, our nearest neighbors are wonderful folks. For several years, some of the family women (mother, daughter, daughter’s partner, and daughter-in-law, and four female dogs) have adopted the practice of a fall girls’ four-day vacation barring husbands, sons, brothers, nephews, etc. from camp (or for at least part of the weekend).
The women love to explore the woods and nearby lakes, taking long walks and ATV trips. Since I’ve been in the area longer, they have often invited me along as their “guide.” Now, you might think this breaks the spirit of girls’ weekend. But (if I do pat myself on the back), I do a pretty good job of being one of the girls. I may provide suggestions on where to go and what to see, but all decisions are theirs. They set the pace; on ATV rides, I take the last position allowing them to experience the unfamiliar territory at their tempo with the instruction that when they come to an intersection, they wait if they’re not sure which direction to take so I can point.
I’ve proven I’m comfortable working with women. I served as a board member for nearly a decade and president for two years of the (then 700+-person) Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime. And I’m a good listener, and do not fall into mansplaining when I’m with them. That’s easy since the four include a police officer, a full-time sergeant in the national guard, a healthcare worker, and the long-term manager of a business. I have never repeated any of their conversations to their family members.
A few weeks ago, the girls asked if I’d like to join them for their first go at a spring weekend. I was stoked to return north. We weren’t sure if we’d make the last two-and-a-half miles by snowmobile, by car, or on foot. Once they invited me, they figured they had better include the old man of the family (husband, father, father-in-law—depending on which woman we’re referring to). With everyone on board, we agreed the women would arrive on Thursday with minimal supplies since they might have to walk in. The guys would come up Friday morning towing either a snowmobile or ATV (depending on road conditions) and haul in the rest of the supplies.
The last weekend in March hit a sweet spot. Snow had melted sufficiently, but the roads were still mostly frozen and, with care and slow speeds, they drove both a Jeep and a car all the way to their camp. The tricky part was the last two-and-a-half miles where the center of the road was snow/ice packed solid by snowmobiles over the winter. They made it to camp before noon on Thursday, reported we should bring the ATV, and that because of the icy road center, we should only drive the F-150 to a landing a half mile before their camp.
We used my Outback and the Jeep to bring supplies from the F-150 to their camp. I parked at their place and humped my pack in the last 3/8ths of a mile to my house because that section of the road was a mixture of ice and bare areas that showed signs of frost heaves. With temperatures expected to rise above freezing, I was afraid I might get in fine, but not be able to get out. (Keep that thought in mind.)
At my place, I found the batteries fully charged from the solar panels, so I had electricity. I didn’t want to have to drain the entire house again when I left in two days, so I only brought water into the basement pressure tank where I attached a hose to draw buckets for drinking, dishwashing, and flushing toilets. The inside temperature was thirty-five. With cathedral ceilings, the woodstove would take hours to heat the house, but the girls were eager to continue their moose shed hunt from yesterday. Since I would need to babysit the fire until it was burning steadily, I left the house cold and off we went on our first exploration.
The afternoon walk was just the girls and me. We walked miles through the woods and found areas with more moose scrapes than I’d previously seen in my lifetime. The bulls were beating the hell out of the hardwood saplings, but alas, we discovered no sheds.
I got back to my place about five-thirty and started my woodstove. By seven I had a good bed of coals and a packed stove that I knew would neither go out nor overheat, and I joined everyone for dinner and drinks around their campfire. That night I had the house temperature in the mid-fifties—perfect for sleeping—and with 28,556 steps for the day (mostly in snow), I slept well.
Saturday afternoon all six of us took the ATVs to property for sale that has a half-mile of river frontage. We had all walked the main road to the river but had never explored the rest of the land. Much of it is regrowth quaking aspen—a favorite of moose. We found fresh tracks suggesting we probably pushed a moose out ahead of us.
The girls located a perfect spot for a future cabin. When we returned to the ATVs, we discovered one of them had a flat tire. Our neighbors have a practice of writing each day’s activities in a camp diary, and each year they produce a limited-edition camp book of photographs recording the year’s activities. I said they needed to take a photo of the disabled ATV because it would surely become part of their story book if they bought the land. We left the wounded vehicle with the three youngest girls and returned with the other two ATVs to fetch a portable compressor. The tire just needed air, so everyone got back fine.
Temperatures had warmed from below freezing in the morning to the mid-forties in the afternoon, and the roads were getting sloppy in places. The weather forecast called for an overnight low of twenty-six with 1-2” of snow. We agreed we’d be better off waiting for roads to refreeze than risk tearing them up or slipping off the ice and sticking in mud.
After only 17,416 steps for the day, I again slept well, this time choosing to haul my sleeping bag onto the screened porch. (It’s my preferred sleeping spot unless temps fall below twenty.)
Before I went to bed, it started to snow and stick. I awoke to 3-4” of slippery white stuff.
We agreed to leave at noon and quickly learned we should have brought the cars out to the main road the night before. Within two hundred yards of their cabin, the front-wheel-drive car slid off the road. Four people pushing got the car back onto the icy middle, but going up the next rise, it slipped off again. This time we couldn’t push it out.
With most of our equipment sitting in the F-150 parked a half-mile away, we tried my small come-along[v], but the rope we had available was too stretchy to work. I pulled my Subaru Outback off the road and we positioned the Jeep with a front power winch to be next in line. The winch worked, and once the car was back onto the center, we backed it up enough so the Jeep could pass and take the lead. We then attached the car to the Jeep with a tow strap and had the Jeep pull the car the two miles to the main road.
The Jeep was steady; the car slipping and sliding all over the road. I followed next white-knuckling my way past places where my tires wanted to follow the car off the road. Once I passed the F-150, it followed in the clean-up position creeping along to keep the loaded trailer under control.
Halfway out, I slid off. I straightened my wheels and carefully reversed back onto the road. Whew.
A quarter mile further, I slid off again, this time four feet down a slope. I thought I could recover, but after reversing three feet, I was stuck. I texted the F-150. No response and after a few minutes still no truck. I hiked back a half mile and found them off the other side of the road.
With their stronger come-a-long and tow straps, they had pulled over a 4”-diameter pine tree and were now adding another tow strap to reach a large maple to use as an anchor point. With three of us working, we soon hauled the F-150 back onto the center. For a while we weren’t sure if the truck would pull the trailer out or the trailer would drag the truck back off, but the truck won. To extract my car, we attached the come-a-long and tow strap to my trailer hitch Easy Peasy.
We made it the rest of the way to the main road and caravanned without incident the remaining eleven miles to the paved road. A trip that normally takes thirty minutes, took two hours and forty-five minutes. I see an addendum coming to my neighbors’ weekend diary.
The moral of the story is to make sure you have the right tools AND people who know how to use them. Then it’s just an adventure and fodder for future stories.
I’m looking forward to the next girls’ weekend.
[i] Winter diet for moose (the Algonquin word for twig-eater) consists mainly of twigs from a wide variety of woody plants. They tend to grab a mouthful and move on – hence the term browsing. The chomped off ends of the branches are referred to as “browse sign” or “browse” for short.
[ii] Moose rub their antlers against small trees to mark territory, scrape off velvet, and work off their aggression during rut season (in the fall).
[iii] Each bull moose has two antlers, which they shed each spring. The fallen antler is referred to as a “shed.” Because they weigh so much, a moose with only one antler is lopsided and works hard to get rid of the second antler after dropping the first.
[iv] Temporary roads that loggers use to drag (or skid) trees out to a landing where they stack them for pickup are called skidder trails.
[v] A come-along is a hand-operated winch with a ratchet used to pull objects (or make them come along the path you want to drag them)
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James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. Furthermore, a novella is the most recent addition to the series. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.